Gael García Bernal on ‘Neruda,’ Mexico’s ‘Tres Amigos’ Tradition, Filmmaking’s Rewards

The Mexican multi-hyphenate presents ‘Neruda’ at Morelia, after receiving the San Sebastian Jaeger-LeCoultre Latin Cinema Award

Opening of the 2016 Morelia International
Courtesy: Morelia International Film Festival

There’s a glorious scene in Roberto Sneider’s “Me estás matando, Susana,” where Gael Garcia Bernal’s character, a young Mexican actor, flies to a U.S. writing seminar to win back the love of his wife, a feminist novelist. Dining with her fellow students, Garcia Bernal staunchly defends Mexican regional cuisine. “You go to each little town and you say: ‘What do you eat?’” And he fires off the replies: ‘Pubil suckling-pig tacos, Juchitan armadillo, worms from Oaxaca, chipinil, bull’s penis.” And what’s the seminar’s local town known for? “Well,” says one student, “They do a pretty good baconburger.”

On Friday, Gael Garcia Bernal opened the Morelia Festival, one of Latin America’s highest-profile film events, presenting Pablo Larrain’s “Neruda.” Breaking out internationally with Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s “Amores Perros” in 2000, then winning Venice’s Marcelo Mastroianni Award with childhood friend Diego Luna for “Y tu mama también” in 2001, Garcia Bernal could  have simply sought to cross over to Hollywood. Instead, he has directed (“Deficit,” 2007, and a short in “Revolution”); produced (docu “Who is Dayani Cristal?” Michael Rowe’s “The Well”); co-founded Canana, one of Latin America’s most important production houses, with Luna and Pablo Cruz in 2005; co-launched Ambulante, a travelling docu fest; campaigned intelligently to preserve Mexican film funding systems.

An international name from when he played Ernesto Guevara in 2004’s “The Motorcycle Diaries,” he has also sought to lever his fame to make movies which promote Mexican and Latin American cinema and culture at large while questioning stereotypes, cliches and received wisdom. His best titles – “Y tu mama tambien,” “Revolution,” “Babel,” “Casa de mi padre,” “No,” ‘Neruda” – have a social, political edge. A celeb in Mexico from 1992, when he starred in soap opera “El abuelo y yo,” just as Cuaron and Del Toro were making their first features, he is still only 37 but has the stature of one of the Mexican industry’s elder statesmen. His opinions – about films, Mexico’s national cinema –  also often have a broader world and industry vision than most above-the-line talent.

Garcia Bernal flew into Spain’s San Sebastian Festival last month to receive its inaugural Jaeger-LeCoultre Latin Cinema Award. Yesterday, in Mexico, he gave a “Neruda” press conference at Morelia with actor Luis Gnecco, who plays the Chilean Nobel Prize winning poet. Here are 10 things Gael Garcia Bernal said at these events, which capture something of the measure of the man:


“I rarely dare to talk about [the quality] of films I’m in, but this, a very good film about the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, brings to light his poetry which is so vital in these times of darkness,” Garcia Bernal said at Morelia’s inauguration on Friday, as he reflected on the political and social situation of Mexico. ”Nearly everything in cinema is an exercise in reconciliation, where absolute justice, perfect justice do not exist. Pablo [Larrain’s] films are like this,” he added.


“There’s a culture of friendship in Latin American cinema, between people like Alfonso Cuaron, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Guillermo del Toro, which they in turn inherited from others. They’re a sensation of brotherhood, that people care abut you, look after you, which we’ve sought to maintain consciously. That “brotherhood” is the best way to survive, to make better films, but it also a way of coming close to the biggest reason to make films. Filmmaking for me is like a fraternal act, like being with your family, and feeling that what we’re doing, when the film is over and makes some impact, is worth it. That intense encounter with all those people flowers, emanates for ever. You’re a kind of cousin, brother, lover, father, son of all those people with whom you worked. It’s a beautiful sensation.


Fruit of “a youthful, anti-authority impulse,” Garcia Bernal said, Ambulante will hold its 12th edition in 2017, visiting 16 cities in Mexico. “More than 100,000 Mexican people watch documentaries, which is fantastic. Audiences have gotten far more used to them. We needed to generate a documentary film culture because it’s the most common and accessible type of filmmaking [in Mexico]. Tons of directors have emerged simply from picking up a camera and making films, many of which are marvellous. They’ve opened the door to the treatment of other issues, for directors to ask damning questions, to destroy dominant conformism, just one way of looking at things, which is the most important thing about a documentary.


Garcia Bernal was born in Huetamo, Michoacán. Morelia is its capital. “To have grown up here, gave me the possibility of understanding what was happening on earth, not in the world, but on earth,” Garcia Bernal said at Morelia.


Ambulante was one of so many things which we thought up when we were 23 or 24, one out of 10 ideas and the only one which maybe really worked and had a reason for coming into existence. Others were good ideas, but just not feasible, such as a TV series with one hour-plus episodes shot in each of Mexico’s 72 states. Back then, streaming didn’t exist. So we’d go and see people who couldn’t help us, though we still wanted them to change their attitude.”


“On ‘Amores Perros’ and “Motorcycle Diaries,’ you could see the beginning of the end, the start of another era. Now everything is so much quicker. There’s not the rigour of before – before, when the camera started moving, everybody had to be in frame. Now, with digital, we can make adjustments down the line. Filmmaking’s a much more democratic now,” Garcia Bernal said at San Sebastian.


Mexico produced 140 movies in 2015, twice 2011’s level and above the historical record of Mexico’s golden years cinema. At 5,977 in 2105, Mexico’s has almost as many cinema screens as Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Chile put together. “The first film I made, ‘Amores Perros,’  was one of six that year in Mexico, a country where, just 50 years before, more than 100 films got made anually ,” Garcia Bernal said at San Sebastian. “He added: “Going down to just six in a country with such a large audience and movie culture was a revolution. Now. we’re raising the bar again. We’re still below our potential in a country with such a large population and so many cinema theaters. We’ve still got a large growth potential.”


“The U.S. buys less foreign-language films and, if it does, buys them for a pittance. That doesn’t help our films to have an outlet which, in other times, was a really important other window. Things have changed a lot.”


“What hasn’t changed and I’d really like to stress this, Garcia Bernal said at San Sebastian, “is that our films need to be seen in our countries, Mexican films in Spain, Spanish films in Ecuador. We need a more aggressive culture, to establish ways for our films to be seen [outside their countries of origin]. It’s the only way to grow.”


Asked at Morelia about being an actor: “My first impression of actors, coming from a family of actors, was that of adults who acted like children. I didn’t imagine I would become one. But now that I am, I’m so proud. To inhabit another being, another life, is ultimately a privilege.”